The meaning of Jessie Duarte and her generation’s activism

The meaning of Jessie Duarte and her generation's activism
Yasmin 'Jessie' Duarte Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress elected at the 53rd and 54th national congresses of Africa's oldest liberation movement. PICTURE BY News24

Jessie’s home in Newclare was like a community centre that gathered young people in its warmth and revolutionary spirit. Jessie (1953 – 2022) was a feminist, political activist and a leader.


Jessie was the only sister in her family of nine and she was by then married to John Duarte, whom she was later divorced from but remained friends with.

Through her work in many organisations, she was part of the cohort of leaders who organised the schools, consumer strike and other boycotts that gave meaning to our lives and painted canvases of future hope.

By engaging us in activism across a spectrum of struggles, these leaders helped us plot a way out of the straitjacket constraints of apartheid capitalism.

The meaning of Jessie Duarte and her generation's activism
Yasmin ‘Jessie’ Duarte. PIC SA History Online

When she returned from the United States where she spent time as an American Field Services (AFS) member, Jessie arranged to send young leaders to the US. Later, she worked with the cleric Beyers Naudé to arrange to send young people out of the country to learn and to prepare for freedom.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura said at her funeral on Sunday 17 July 2022 that a generation of students had been educated through these efforts.

She and John arranged an AFS scholarship for me, but my parents preferred that I go straight to university. Her kindness and the potential she saw in me stayed with me. Women like her built us up by seeing us in ways the apartheid state kept trying to ensure we would never see ourselves.

As a member of the Federation of Transvaal Women (Fedtraw), Jessie made the greatest impact on future generations.

With her comrades such as Albertina Sisulu, Bertha Gxowa and Sister Bernard Ncube, they defined feminism for South Africa, insisting that the struggle against Apartheid capitalism was a struggle against racism and gendered oppression.

I remember how their campaigns, through posters and organising at factories and in communities, made vivid how black women suffered a triple oppression of race, sex and class. It helped me understand the life of my mom, my aunts and the women in our working-class communities. And to recognise them as the titans they were for running their homes and bringing up their families.

Jessie and her generation ensured that workers’ rights — such as paid maternity leave, the child support grant and free healthcare — became policy and then law, changing the trajectory for millions of women.

As a young feminist journalist, it was an honour to report on these changes but also to have had first-hand insight into how policy change started in community struggles and grassroots campaigns.

As I scrolled through my old WhatsApp exchanges with Jessie in sadness on Sunday, I came across a message from August 2021. “I am so tired of women being victims. We must fight back now. Policies are not enough.” I agreed. “I want to leave this DSG (deputy secretary-general, her role at the ANC) and just be an active voice for women.”

At other times, she said she wanted to retire and spend more time with her four grandchildren, two of whom live in Canada.

She never did (retire). Jessie gave her life to the struggle and to the ANC, which she served in numerous capacities until her death. I remember one time asking if she was heading to Canada over the holidays and she said that she didn’t have sufficient airline points for the flight.

Unlike many, Duarte never made money off her party affiliation and she remained, at heart, a grassroots activist.

Her greatest strength was political management and the years since the party’s 2017 conference took a toll as the increasingly factional party needed more and more corralling. This work often fell to her.

Jessie worked in Nelson Mandela’s office as ANC president and continued to serve under every party president, including Cyril Ramaphosa, making her its longest-serving official.

In 2017, Jessie ran the party presidency campaign for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who lost. She was still re-elected as deputy secretary-general under Ramaphosa and executed on his mandate, but she would likely have wanted to see a woman be ANC president in her time.

Some political analysts have caricatured her as a lash of Zuma, a trope I always found simplistic. Jessie knew his shortcomings, but her political loyalties to the ANC and to comradeship were unbound.

The Dangors were her first family; the ANC a close second. She, for example, duly implemented the party’s step-aside rule, which meant that she had to suspend the secretary-general Ace Magashule, but she also clubbed together with other leaders to pay his bail when he was first arrested…CONTINUE READING…

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